David R. Henderson  

The Economics of Sanctions on Iraq

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However, the devastation of Iraq in the service of limiting proliferation did not begin with the war in 2003. For the previous 13 years, that country had suffered under economic sanctions, visited upon it by both Democratic and Republican administrations, that were designed to force the evil, if pathetic, Saddam Hussein from office (and, effectively, from life, since he had no viable sanctuary elsewhere) and to keep the country from developing weapons, particularly nuclear ones. The goals certainly had their admirable side, but, as multiple studies have shown, the sanctions proved to be a necessary cause (another is the administrative practices of Saddam's regime) of hundreds of thousands of deaths in the country, most of them children under the age of five--the most innocent of civilians.

The additional deaths are attributed to inadequate food and medical supplies (between 1990 and 1996, pharmaceuticals were allowed in at only 10 percent of 1989 levels) as well as breakdowns in sewage and sanitation systems and in the electrical power systems needed to run them--systems destroyed by bombing in the 1991 Gulf War that had often gone unrepaired due to sanctions-enhanced shortages of money, equipment, and spare parts. It was not until 1998--nearly eight years after sanctions began--that Iraq was allowed to buy material for rebuilding its agricultural sector, water supply facilities, oil fields, and once impressive medical system. Furthermore, imports of some desperately needed materials were delayed or denied because of concerns that they might contribute to Iraq's WMD programs. Supplies of syringes were held up for half a year because of fears they might be used in creating anthrax spores. Chlorine, an important water disinfectant, was not allowed into the country because it might be diverted into making chlorine gas, the first chemical weapon used in World War I but later abandoned when more effective ones were developed. Cancer soared because requested radiotherapy equipment, chemotherapy drugs, and analgesics were often blocked. Medical diagnostic techniques that make use of radioactive particles, once common in Iraq, were banned under the sanctions, and plastic bags needed for blood transfusions restricted. The sanctioners were wary throughout about allowing the importation of fertilizers and insecticides, fearing their use for WMD production, and as a result, disease-carrying pests that might have been controlled proliferated. Similarly restricted at times were cotton, ambulances, and pencils.

Policy makers were clearly aware of the effect the sanctions were having. As Robert Gates, George H. W. Bush's deputy national secretary adviser put it in 1991, while Saddam remains in power, "Iraqis will pay the price." One might have imagined that the people carrying out this policy with its horrific and well-known consequences would from time to time have been queried about whether the results were worth the costs. To my knowledge, this happened only once, on television's 60 Minutes on May 12, 1996. Madeleine Albright, then the American ambassador to the United Nations, was asked, "We have heard that a half a million children have died. I mean, that's more children than died in Hiroshima . . . Is the price worth it?" Albright did not dispute the number and acknowledged it to be "a very hard choice." But, she concluded, "we think the price is worth it," pointing out that because of sanctions Saddam had come "cleaner on some of these weapons programs" and had recognized Kuwait.

In her memoirs, Albright, who later had been promoted to Secretary of State, frankly [sic] recalls of the incident, "As soon as I had spoken, I wished for the power to freeze time and take back those words. Nothing matters more than the lives of innocent people. I had fallen into the trap and said something I did not mean." Presumably what was mistaken and wrong about the reply was not its content, but the fact she said it, because she continued to support the sanctions even while knowing (and publicly acknowledging) they were a necessary cause of the deaths of large numbers of "innocent people." Obviously, something did matter more to her than the lives of such people."

A Lexis-Nexis search suggests that Albright's remarkable dismissal on a prominent television show of the devastation sanctions had inflicted on innocent Iraqi civilians went completely unremarked upon by the country's media. In the Middle East, by contrast, it was widely and repeatedly covered and noted. Among the outraged was Osama bin Laden, who repeatedly used the punishment that sanctions were inflicting on Iraqi civilians as a centerpiece in his many diatribes against what he considered to be heartless and diabolical American policy in the area.

This is from John Mueller, Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda, Oxford University Press, 2010.

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CATEGORIES: International Trade

COMMENTS (13 to date)
lawrence franko writes:

Pretty obvious conclusion. We should have invaded much earlier.

Marielaina Perrone DDS writes:

Sometimes no matter what you do you end up paying a price. Thats what happens when we dithered for so many years in the middle east.

Andy Hallman writes:
Pretty obvious conclusion. We should have invaded much earlier.

Right, because that made their lives so much better.

Lawrence Franko writes:

Exactly. No more wars started by Saddam Hussein with Iran and Kuwait (millions died). No more mass bombings of the Shia (three hundred thousand..). No more gassing of the Kurds ( tens of thousands?). No more Uday and Qusay rape rooms. No more mass murders at Abu Grhaib (as opposed to putting --gasp-- panties on prisoner's heads). And also no more half-million deaths in the civilan population from the sanctions put on by sanctimonious 'liberals' like Albright, who wanted the appearance & domestic PR benefit of 'doing something,' even if the collateral damage caused by that something was horrific. If you think life in Iraq is somehow worse than it was under Saddam for the vast majority of Iraqis, please provide evidence, not cheap shots.

Saturos writes:

You're right, Lawrence, all said and done, the invasion of Iraq was a great idea. Next stop, invade North Korea.

Justin writes:


If you think life in Iraq is somehow worse than it was under Saddam for the vast majority of Iraqis, please provide evidence, not cheap shots.


Next stop, invade North Korea.

And there response is... not evidence. or even reason. I know the side represented by Saturos can do better.

Andy Hallman writes:
Exactly. No more wars started by Saddam Hussein with Iran and Kuwait (millions died).

It's funny you bring up the war against Iran because the US thought this was a good idea at the time, which is why it gave weapons to Iraq. The wikipedia entry on the Gulf War states that 12,000 Kuwaiti soldiers died plus 1,000 Kuwaiti civilians. That is very bad, of course, although I don't see how it is especially relevant to the 2003 invasion, unless Hussein was planning to invade Kuwait a second time. Even if he were, I don't think that would justify invading Iraq, although I acknowledge that would be evidence in support of that proposition.

No more Uday and Qusay rape rooms.

Actually, it seemed that it was only Uday who was doing that, according to this Time Magazine article from May 2003. I agree that it is good that Uday is no longer raping women. Do we have a good idea of how many women were raped there? Clearly, we can point out lots of horrific acts of abuse during the Coalition government's occupation, such as the massacre at Haditha.

It's important to keep in mind the distinction between act and omission. Killing someone is worse than letting someone be killed, so it's not sufficient to tally up which side has killed more (or raped more, or whatever) to determine if an intervention is just.

No more mass murders at Abu Grhaib (as opposed to putting --gasp-- panties on prisoner's heads).

Is that a joke? Abu Ghraib.

If you think life in Iraq is somehow worse than it was under Saddam for the vast majority of Iraqis, please provide evidence, not cheap shots.

My reply was a one-sentence rebuttal of your flippant rebuttal to David's post. It was no more a cheap shot than yours.

As an aside, whether Iraqis are better off (those who survived) than they were pre-invasion seems like a different question than whether the invasion is justified. If you invade a country, which involves firing at people who may or may not be armed, firing into buildings where you do not know who is inside, you are going to kill a lot of people, both people who are just defending themselves as well as people who weren't even doing that. To justify something like that, two things have to be true: 1) you must be preventing a much larger catastrophe, and 2) there must not be an easier, less costly way of affecting that change. In the case of Iraq, I think #1 was definitely false. The U.S. did not invade to prevent an imminent genocide. I noticed that all of your examples of Hussein's major brutality were from the 1980s.

lawrence franko writes:

I was addressing the original comments re the tragedies caused by the sanctions of the 1990s. It seems to me to be a pretty open and shut case that the world would have been a much better place had we finished the First Gulf War. We then would have clearly "been preventing a much larger catastrophe," and the cost of change would have been a lot lower than it eventually was.

As for Iraq today vs. Iraq under Saddam, are you still defending Saddam?

David R. Henderson writes:

@lawrence franko,
I couldn’t find anything in Andy Hallman’s comments that suggest that he is or was defending Saddam. Normally, when someone says that something someone else did is bad or when he says that the one of the top people in the regime was a rapist, he is not defending the regime.

lawrence franko writes:

Perhaps I should have said "are you still defending the proposition that the Iraqi population has not benefitted from the removal of Saddam, and that they would not have benefitted even more, had he been removed earlier?" -- which was my original point. I know that it is a standard 'anti-war' argument' to say "Saddam was evil, but the US shouldn't have done anything about him" (except the sanctions with their horrid effects on the population, and insignificant effects on the ruling clique--or maybe just close our eyes?). Still, Objectively, as the Marxists used to say, that meant leaving Saddam in place to murder, torture, invade his neighbors, etc. Objectively such a stance defends Saddam, no? I have problems with those who 'denounce evil,' but are unwilling to actually do anything about it... until it is usually too late. I also agree that sanctions typically mis-fire as a policy tool in that there is frequently a mis-match between target (allegedly) aimed-at, and target hit.

I also agree with Andy Hallman's two criteria for intervention. We just happen to disagree, it seems, that leaving Saddam in place would have somehow produced no further catastrophes.

Andy Hallman writes:
I also agree with Andy Hallman's two criteria for intervention. We just happen to disagree, it seems, that leaving Saddam in place would have somehow produced no further catastrophes.

Good, I'm glad we are getting somewhere. At least we can agree on the appropriate criteria by which to judge an act.

There have been many cases where seemingly entrenched and repressive regimes have changed their ways through non-coercive means. Augusto Pinochet agreed to hold elections in Chile after international pressure to do so and a visit from Pope John Paul II.

I don't know enough about Iraq and Hussein to say with much certainty that the country would have gotten better after 2003 without an invasion or sanctions. But I don't think I have to in order to oppose an invasion, for this reason: An invasion involves substantial up front costs. Up front costs can only be justified by larger, long term benefits. That is the problem. What reason did we have to think Iraq would be so much better off post-invasion that we could have justified the huge up front costs?

There are some instances where people are suffering so much, such as under Nazi Germany, that it's nearly impossible for them to be even worse off, so there the case for invasion is much more sensible. But I don't think people in Iraq were experiencing anything like that, although perhaps that is where we disagree.

lawrence franko writes:

Speaking of flippant responses...there are a few differences between Iraq and N. Korea. Two for starters: OIL and MONEY. Anyone who has ever bothered to look at the oil industry is aware that Iraq has oil resources somewhere close to, or greater, than those of Saudi Arabia. Control of those resources is a great prize (every read Dan Yergin's book?) for would-be Conquerers of the World. Saddam was quite good at using oil money to corrupt journalists and polticians around the globe, in addition to using the $$$ for his adventures in WMD (and yes, they were real in the past, and had more than a little potential for the future). He was also quite explict about his desire to use his control of those resources to build a new pan-Arab empire. That was the whole point of Baathist Ideology, an unholy marriage of Marxism, German Fascism, and Islamic Imperialism. So that raises a third difference: N. Korea may bluster, but it isn't about to try to conquer Japan or China.

One last issue: Abu Ghraib. The Wikipedia article cited by Andy Hallman seems to think that the prison started with the allied invasion. Please. Under Saddam, it was the center of perhaps (I have seen varying estimates...one of the glories of a totalitarian state is that such numbers are avialable only by counting graves after the invasion..) up to several hundred thousand people who were checked in to Abu Ghraib by Saddam who never came out. The world is well rid of him.

lawrence franko writes:

Andy Hallman,

I agree we are making progress. Consider a couple of other points: 1. What makes you (or anyone) think that Saddam's regime would have evolved in a more democratic/liberal direction a la Pinochet? There was reason to believe -- later confirmed -- that Pinochet had some residual Christian/civilized impulses hidden behind the authoritarian fist. Franco and Spain also come to mind. But Saddam had given ample evidence that he was a pure Totalitarian, both by his earlier behavior and his ideology (his living quarters were a shrine to Stalin, and he literally shot his way to power). See Jeane Kirkpatrik's Dictatorships and Double Standards for further discussion.

2. The issue with Iraq was not only whether Iraq would be better post-invasion, given the costs, but whether the Region and the World would be better off. See my comment to Saturos re N. Korea. Oil+money+geography+Sunni+Shia+Kurds makes Iraq a geopoltical lynchpin in a way that N. Korea simply is not.

I have kicked around Arab world a fair amount. The Middle East is a mess and always will be, but we are still better off than we would have been with a Baathist Imperialism led by Saddam, the likely alternative had we not invaded.

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